Is it Permissible to Study Mishneh Torah as a Stand-Alone Work? – Mishneh Torah In-Depth, Article 1 – Introduction to Mishneh Torah – Chabad.org

Posted By on July 4, 2020

The Talmud in Tractate Sotah, asinterpreted by Rashi, makes a startling statement:

It was stated, one who readScripture and studied Mishnah, but did not serve Torah sages, he didnot spend time amongst the scholars in order to decipher the reasoning behindthe commandments. Rabbi Elazar says thathe is considered an ignoramus. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeni says that he is a boor, an individual inferior to anignoramus.

Rashi comments:

Did not serve Torah sages: Hedid not study the Talmud, which explains the rationale of the Mishnah. Thisindividual is considered wicked, since his learning is not thorough. One mustnot study from such an individual, since it is specifically the reasoning [thatgives one the ability] to discern what is prohibited and what ispermitted . . . This person is considered bare.

What seems clear is that one mustnot study halachah in a vacuum. Theevolution and rationale of the law are not merely added elements; they areintegral to understanding the law itself. One who studies halachah in isolation will likely err.

Shortly after the completion ofMaimonides Mishneh Torah in 1180,Maimonides faced a wave of criticism on these very grounds. In creating aclear, systematic and comprehensive code of halachah,he seems to be in violation of the Talmud above. He specifically did not wantto confuse or distract his reader with the minutiae of discussion leading tothe final law. He included nothing more and nothing less than clear,straightforward law. As he articulates clearly in his introduction to Mishneh Torah:

I, Moses,the son of Maimon, of Spain . . . contemplated all these textsand sought to compose [a work which would include the conclusions] derived fromall these texts regarding the forbidden and the permitted, the impure and thepure, and the remainder of the Torah's laws, all in clear and concise terms, sothat the entire Oral Law could be organized in each person's mouth withoutquestions or objections.

Instead of[arguments], this one claiming such and another such, [this text will allowfor] clear and correct statements based on the judgments that result from allthe texts and explanations mentioned above . . .

A personwill not need another text at all with regard to any Jewish law. Rather, thistext will be a compilation of the entire Oral Law . . . a personshould first study the Written Law, and then study this text and comprehend theentire Oral Law from it, without having to study any other text between thetwo.

Maimonides' code, as pure,unadulterated law, is seemingly exactly what the Talmud cautioned against.According to Rashi's interpretation of the Talmud, Mishneh Torahwhen studied as intended by the authorwould do moreharm than good.

Indeed, this concern of the Talmud(as understood by Rashi) surfaced a generation later, as evidenced in theresponsa of Rabbeinu Asher, the Rosh. He was responding to a rabbiwho had written to him regarding a mikvahthat had been filled using a questionable technique.

The law is that water used to fill amikvah must be naturally flowing,either rainwater that falls directly into the mikvah or aspring that flows into the mikvah. Inthis case, a mikvah had beenconstructed alongside a spring. In order to fill it, water was added to thespring, causing it to overflow into the mikvah.

The rabbi writing to the Roshassumed that this mikveh was nowinvalid. He based this assumption on (amongst other sources) the followingstatement of Maimonides in Mishneh Torah:When one digs at the side of a spring, as long as the water emerges because ofthe spring, even though at times, its flow is interrupted, but then it flowsagain, it is considered as a spring (i.e., a kosher mikvah). If, however, it ceased flowing entirely, it is consideredas water collected in a pit.

The assumption of the questioningrabbi was that once the water pooled in the mikvah,it would be considered as if it had ceased flowing and therefore beclassified as water collected in a pit and invalid for use as a mikvah.

The Rosh rejects this, pointing outthat this extrapolation stems from a misunderstanding of Maimonides. Maimonides,explains the Rosh, is actually quoting a section of Tosefta. Seeing the full context of the quote precludes theunderstanding of the Roshs questioner.

The Tosefta is discussing the differences between various categories ofwater that may be used as a mikvah.One difference mentioned by the Tosefta isbetween water pooled in a pit and flowing rainwater. Both are kosher, but waterpooled in a pit is of an inferior level and has certain restrictions regardingits use.

With this context in mind, we canunderstand the error called out by the Rosh. When the water is actively flowingto and from the spring, it is considered to be an extension of the spring. If,however, the water pools in a pit, it is now considered pooled water (notflowing rainwater and not an extension of the spring). This is not to say the mikvah is invalid; it is simply aninferior category, but still a kosher mikvah.

Thus, we have clear, documentedevidence of the Talmuds concern: studying laws bereft of their context leadsto mistaken conclusions. This leads the Rosh to caution against deriving anylaw from the text of Mishneh Torah:

Therefore,all who decide law from the Mishneh Torah,without thorough knowledge of the background, are in error. They make what isforbidden permitted and what is permitted forbidden. This is because Maimonidesdid not follow the convention [established by] all other authors, who citeproofs and sources for their conclusions.

This begs the question, who iscorrect? Do we follow the advice of Maimonides in his introduction, where heencourages one to simply read the Written Torah and then move straight to his Mishneh Torah, or do we follow theopinion of the Rosh, who strongly opposed such an approach?

To demystify this, we must firstresolve an apparent difficulty in the Laws of Torah Study, from the Code ofJewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) by RabbiSchneur Zalman of Liadi.

Initially, he seems to side clearlywith the Rosh:

If one doesnot understand the reasoning behind the law, then he will not be able to fullycomprehend the law. He is called a boor.Therefore, there is a prohibition against deciding law, even for oneself,from halachot without the reasoningincluded [alongside.]

However, later in that same chapterhe encourages individuals who have mastered practical halachah, i.e, they are knowledgeable and fluent in halachah pertinent today, to dedicatetime to study areas of laws not applicable today, such as the laws of thesacrifices. And if, he adds, there is insufficient time to master these areasby first studying the Talmud and its commentaries, then one should study thebasic laws as articulated in the mishnayotand in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.

Now, if we take into account whatwas quoted earlier, we seem to have a problem. Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote thatif one does not study the reasoning behind the law, he will not be able tofully comprehend the law. He is called a boor.So what is the point? Why study in such a manner if the study is in vain due toa lack of understanding? Surely it would be preferable to study at a slowerpace while incorporating the background of the law, which would enable a properunderstanding?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in a talkcommemorating the passing of both Maimonides (on the 20th of Tevet) and ofRabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (on the 24th of Tevet), addressed this issue. Basedon a close analysis of the exact wording used by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, which isbased on the Sefer Mitzvot Hagadol, hedraws a distinction between two elements within the obligation to study andknow Torah (yediat haTorah). Oneelement of this obligation is to study the mitzvahs in order to acquire thepractical knowledge necessary to fulfill Torahs precepts correctly. A vastamount of knowledge is needed to properly navigate the complexities ofday-to-day halachah. This elementpertains only to the mitzvahs that have a practical application nowadays.

But there is a second element to themitzvah of yediat haTorah: one mustattain the ability to observe all613 mitzvahs in ones heart. One is obligated to acquire the knowledgenecessary to fulfill even mitzvahs that are not applicable nowadays, withoutthe Temple standing in Jerusalem.

With this distinction, we can betterunderstand why Rabbi Schneur Zalman advises that an individual study mishnayot and Mishneh Torah, even if these works do not articulate the reasoningbehind the law. True, such study is not advisable when it serves as the basefor the practical application of law. However, one is also obligated to knowTorah as it pertains to the mitzvahs that have no practical application today.For this study, it is reasonable that a lighter study course is followed, onethat enables the individual to cover all themitzvahs, albeit on a basic level. Since one is not studying to practicallyobserve these mitzvahs, this study is purely theoretical and we are notconcerned about any erroneous application of law.

Earlier, when Rabbi Schneur Zalmanchastised individuals who study the halachotwithout first exploring the relevant sources in the Talmud and itscommentaries, he was referring to a study that would lead to a practicalapplication of law. In such a case, the Roshs concern is valid; an incorrectruling may well be the result. However, when studying for knowledge alone, toobserve the mitzvahs in ones heart, it is preferable to cover allmitzvahsalbeit on a more basic levelthan to study a few in depth. For suchstudy, Mishneh Torah is ideal.

So while Maimonides failed toactualize the complete replacement of the evolutionary processes of halachah as he envisioned in hisintroduction, Mishneh Torah doesserve an extremely valuable purpose as a work to be studied independently. Itis the only comprehensive and approachable work that covers every single areaof halachah. Thus, it is the workfavored for providing a birds-eye view of all areas of Torah law, a keycomponent of the mitzvah to know Torah.

Learn about the Rebbes initiative encouraging all Jews to studyMishneh Torah dailly.

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Is it Permissible to Study Mishneh Torah as a Stand-Alone Work? - Mishneh Torah In-Depth, Article 1 - Introduction to Mishneh Torah - Chabad.org

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